A letter to music educators during COVID closure

Dear Music Teacher,

How are you? This is certainly not what we thought May would look like when we started the school year! It goes without saying that this is a totally unique and unprecedented situation, with unique challenges for our particular discipline. Many of us are the planning type, and by extension, the worrying type. This is only one person’s opinion, but music will not go away. It is such an integral part of our society, and our community of music educators is so strong in our ability to advocate and remind people why our content is so crucial for students to experience. In this time, rather than focus on fears and frightening possibilities, it makes most sense to me to use this interval as a chance to develop skills, and figure out if we are best serving our students. 

I’m sure we have many questions. Most of them don’t have answers. The timing of this situation means that we have summer vacation shortly ahead of us. The beginning of the COVID pandemic didn’t really hit us until early March, and the time until school starts is more than twice the amount of time that we’ve been in this so far. Consider how much the knowledge and research has changed in two months, and how quickly things have developed. Right now, it is impossible to predict what things will look like in September, so while having contingency plans is smart, doom and gloom panic only affects our mental health, and really nothing else. (For example, consider how much the reports have changed and varied in this week ALONE. I drafted this on Tuesday, when many were hearing that wind instruments could never be played again in a school. Just three days later, we are now hearing that perhaps very little risk of spread will come from wind instruments, just as an example. This is an extremely fluid situation!)

Things will look different. We will eventually get to a place where we can make music together again. Until then, we need to hold serve and make adjustments. Our commitment and passion for bringing musical experiences to our students will persevere if we can be patient and find solutions in the interim.


How can we social distance and still have concerts?

You will probably live-stream concerts for families for a while. Is that different? Yes, but it’s better than cancelling a concert! Churches are finding during this time that they are actually reaching more people than usual because people can watch from anywhere, and on their own terms. Playing for a full house is nice, but giving out-of-town relatives a chance to hear the concert, or creating a situation where a parent who works an evening shift can finally “attend’ a concert is also very powerful. We are getting good at distance-communicating now, right? Think of this as merely an extension of that, or an opportunity to put our newly-mastered skills to good use. It’s also great to remember that a concert is not the only measure by which we can view progress and learning from our students. It’s often where we get to display that progress, but it isn’t necessarily the only opportunity for reflection and evaluation.


How can we have our large ensemble rehearsals?

Maybe we can’t! So much of the instruction we provide happens outside of that environment. Strengthening skills, revisiting content that we wish students had gotten the first time, delving deeper into things that you’ve glossed over…these are things we can do in smaller groups, and often even virtually. Imagine if you went back into the rehearsal room, in however long, with a group of kids that sight read two levels above that which they sight read now. What a great scenario for everyone, right? Pieces will come together more quickly, maybe you can even play harder music. What about if you were able to teach kids to really understand rhythm? What if every kid could know every major and minor scale? These are all things that will make our ensembles stronger when we are able to be in them again. Even the opportunity to make our students more autonomous learners is one that we can choose to embrace and bolster. 


Continue to foster the special relationships within music programs.

In this completely unprecedented time, the most important thing beyond all of this is that the relationship between teacher and student can stay strong, or even develop further, and that the students (and you!) are doing okay! Mental health matters! Connections matter so much, and we all know that as music educators. Thinking outside of the box and doing things that we can do with our students will ultimately allow us to reap major benefits when things can once again look more like they did a few months ago. Or maybe you’re the person I saw today on social media inventing “instrument masks”, and figuring out a way to make the normal seem possible. It was actually pretty amazing, and the creativity within our profession is one of our deepest strengths. Maybe someone reading this has the answer to making it all work.


This could be a chance to reset a lot of things.

Never in my memory has there been this long a period of time where everything just stopped. Nobody is getting a leg up here (except maybe onto the couch), and in almost every case, nobody is going to be critical of what was accomplished (or not) during this time. With that in mind, I think this is a fantastic time to evaluate what we are teaching, decide whether or not we are teaching the things we should be, and adjust or change the way in which we run our programs. I am not answering these questions, necessarily, but for example: Is a jazz band the most relevant kind of “second” ensemble experience to offer to students in your community? What kind of music should your choir be singing? Do students have a voice in their own musical experience? Are we too obsessed with perfection that we squelch creativity and chance-taking? Are composers of diverse backgrounds being frequently represented in your programming? Are we creating environments where every student feels welcomed and has access to the opportunity? There are many, many angles from which we can evaluate, and perhaps after that work is done, you’ll be quite proud and satisfied that you are providing exactly the experience that is best for your students. I am hoping to  take steps to come out of this having learned something. You may as well, and that is a good thing.


I know, I’ll do a virtual ensemble!

Cool, that will be awesome. For you. Is it really the most beneficial use of your time for your students? Think of the hours spent learning about technology, getting frustrated with bad mics and background noise as kids record, all of the struggles you’ll endure for a 3 minute video that people will watch and go “oh that’s cool!”. The average video view duration on YouTube is somewhere around 50-60%, so the kid who has the “off stage” solo at the end of the piece where you are doing to insert that totally slick transition in Final Cut…most people probably won’t even make it to that part! Imagine further, the inequities involved in something like this. The kid who is embarrassed to show his living room in the video. The kid who hasn’t had a haircut and is embarrassed to show his face on the screen. What about the teacher in the next district over who really wants to do something like that too, but can’t, because they’re watching and homeschooling three little kids as they and their spouse work from home and have no extra time. Helping our students get better is something we can all do, and as always, that should be our top priority. Think of the things you could do with students, or for students, in all the time it takes to edit a virtual ensemble. You could provide them with rich, detailed feedback. You could watch online performances together, guiding their listening and coaching their ears. You could provide more challenging content to further enhance their skills. You could provide master class type opportunities where you present concepts and ideas that we normally don’t have time for in school. Most importantly, you could further develop your relationship with them, make sure they’re ok, share insight into your life–current or past–to help them understand your path and your motivations. There are so many things that we can do for or with our students that will really benefit them, that hours working in Logic and Final Cut will not provide. If you have done or want to do a virtual ensemble video, I’m not saying you are doing something wrong, or even that it’s a bad idea. I have seen some truly fascinating presentations of this kind. I just wonder if what the students get out of the process is congruent with the amount of time that everyone involved needs to put in.


Some parting thoughts

I strongly believe in music education, and in music educators. I think that throughout this pandemic, the things that music teachers have come up with and presented have been far ahead of the curve, and have been truly visionary in many cases. As difficult as this has been for us as a society, the music teacher finds themself in a unique position. Sure, English teachers will have to skip a book or two this year, but the opportunity for culminating musical experiences with students with whom we have worked for years upon years…that’s a tougher thing to let go. High scores on AP exams are cool, but have you ever worked for months on a musical, and then opened to a sold-out crowd? Taking that away might sting a bit more. Those stories are ones that you and your students will have forever. But music teachers aren’t so easily stepped on. We will continue to persevere, and continue to find ways to do what we do. We will continue to provide meaningful experiences to our students regardless of the obstacles in our way. Stay positive and stay optimistic. Remember the time the brakes on the marching band bus failed, and then the new bus came, and then THAT bus got a flat tire, and you didn’t panic and the kids all put it on Snapchat and you still made it to Sectionals on time? My point is, we are planners by nature, and the toughest thing for a planner is to not be able to plan. Hang in there, think about what you can do for your students, and they’ll love you just the same, if not more, when we come out the other side of this thing. You can do it, and you will. 

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